Monday, 21 March 2011

Cabrach --- The Deer Thicket

Take a step over the hill from Glass and follow the winding Deveron to discover a different world, not unlike Brigadoon that wakes up for one day in a hundred years then disappears again into the mists. The Cabrach, as the land is named is remote. The hills, covered in heather and broom, provide a home for red deer and rabbits --- as populous as in “Watership Down.” Like other Highland regions, the Cabrach was densely forested and home to wolves. They kept the deer and rabbit population in check and maintained the vitality of the forest.

Eking out a living on the land is hard as the heavy snowfalls are legendary; the growing season a month shorter than at Cottarton. The ground is less fertile.

You pass a single pay phone, a school and a post office then to reach a way station. Surrounded by a small cluster of houses The Grouse Inn is incongruous for its size and vitality. It’s the only country inn for miles around. How on earth does it survive in that sleepy community? Entering the bar you realize just how special the Inn is. They have at least 700 whiskies, most of which you can sample. An institution over two hundred years old, it's been operated by Ian and Wilma McBain since 1939, before that by the Watt family, before that the Stewarts. And so Amber, Adam and I sat down and tasted a rich, peaty malt, while Wilma told us about the land. The longer version is here. I was particularly interested in the chapel at Shenval, apparently the first Catholic chapel built since the Reformation. Because the Cabrach was so remote, and so cold (the Scottish Siberia), Catholics felt safe practicing there. The chapel apparently has an escape tunnel, for use by the priest in case the authorities came to arrest him.

Wilma has four rooms to rent, including one that’s haunted by various ghosts. Her tea room is well frequented. The Inn was and still is the social centre of the Cabrach. Once popular with fishermen catching salmon and trout in the Deveron and Blackwater, these days it survives thanks to busloads of summer tourists that stop by for afternoon tea and to sample the whisky. Amber and went to a Hogmany Party there and met many of our present friends.

I’d already noticed many empty houses that dot the landscape; standing shells with flocks of crows circling above. They tell their own story, that this was once a vital land of crofts and farms but for the past two hundred years has been losing population. The Cabrach School is still open for primary grades. Last year it had two students, hardly enough to keep going, yet the school clings on. Most of the land is owned by absentee landlords, interested more in preserving the land for grouse hunting than in renting or maintaining property. It's a trend that began two centuries ago with the Highland Clearances. There were cases only a few years back of empty houses being burned so that they’d be rendered uninhabitable.

In September 2007 the residents took matters into their own hands. They met at the Grouse and formed the Cabrach Community Association,
with the goal of returning land to local ownership and halting the depopulation. It’s a fledgling movement, but it shows how people can come together to preserve their community and their heritage. We wish them success.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Carmen-3D; Confessions of a purist

I confess to all the angels and saints, that I’m a purist where opera and theatre are concerned. The entire experience must be real --- that means actors on the stage walking in front of you, an orchestra pit and no electronic amplification. After all, you’re watching a real drama unfold in front of you. Real people --- even if they’re acting the part. That way you can totally enter into their world. Once you transfer opera or theatre to celluloid, the images become two dimensional,images instead of people, and the film a dead object; no longer real. You’re reduced to a spectator whose visual experience is manipulated by the director. He decides whether you see a close-up of the principals, some minor characters or the ensemble. He directs your attention and your gaze. You no longer have the freedom to participate in the action as if it were really there.

However not everyone lives in London where theatre and opera are available daily. Not everyone can shell out £100 for a ticket. When Amber bought £8 tickets to an Aberdeen movie house, for us to see the Royal Opera's performance of Bizet's Carmen, filmed in 3-d I was skeptical. My skepticism vanished after the curtain rose on the Seville plaza. I found myself there, walking among the performers. Participating. Granted, the movie with its camera panning interfered with what I wanted to focus on, but nothing seemed to separate me from the action. At times the actors appeared to emerge from the stage and walk among us. When Carmen (Christine Rice) danced around and all over Don Jose (Bryan Hymel), I wasn’t surprised that the poor bloke’s head was turned. I was there. Add to that the superb voices, and we found ourselves wishing that the piece would never end. Christine Rice's presence dominated the stage. You could not avoid avoid her. Maija Kovalevska as Micaela had a particularly stunning voice. The French diction was so clear that I didn’t need subtitles, but they were there anyway, floating above the audience. As with real opera, we had a twenty minute intermission during which time the actual audience murmurs from the Royal Opera house were broadcasted through the speakers.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an experience we shared with many others. The audience were largely grey-heads like us, what my daughters call – Q-tips. Granted, we were at a weekday matinee when younger people were working. However I suspect that opera still has a stigma of an elitist recreation reserved for intellectuals. Not cool in other words. I’m hoping that 3-d opera will change those attitudes, make the fabulous world of theatrical music accessible to everyone. In May, the same theatre will be screening Wagner’s “Die Walkure” in 3-d. Amber and I will be there.

3-d opera may not be the same as sitting in a wooden seat in Bayreuth and watching Wagner’s Ring, but right now it’s the next best thing.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The Witches’ Parking Lot

Walking through a Scottish forest, you occasionally run into the curious sight of several poles with wire mesh paddles. Actually, they’re the new and improved model. The early model I remember when I was seven resembled a collection of brooms with birch twigs. I reckoned they were witches' brooms, parked there while the witches attended a sabbath. Of course my dad gave me the rational scoop, that those brooms were for putting out forest fires, but his explanation never made sense to me. If I find a forest fire, I'd need to trek 2-5 miles to the nearest “parking lot”, grab a broom and fly back on it like Harry Potter, "tae pit oot the fire". The only way the brooms can possibly do any good is if a fire is lucky enough to spring up close to them. Besides Scotland is quite wet. It takes a really hot dry spell to create the tinder conditions for fire; hence the rusting fire brooms. They’ve sat there for fifty years unused. I thought my explanation, that the brooms belonged to witches, was far more plausible.

Coming across the strange brooms reminded me of the Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron Gigantea) in Old Scone, and their relationship to fire. They were planted in an arboretum along with many native California trees by David Douglas back in the early nineteenth century. A native of Scone, Douglas travelled the world, gathering saplings and then planting them in the Scone Palace grounds. He died tragically in 1834 in Hawaii, after falling into an animal trap on Mauna Keia. The Douglas Fir is named after him. The Sequoia, and many other trees in the arboretum are fire adapted to the tinder conditions of the High Sierra. Its bark is fireproof. The seeds need to be scorched by fire before they germinate. It needs fire to enrichen the soil and to thin out competing firs and underbrush. I witnessed a forest of tiny saplings emerging in Sequoia National Forest, the spring following a controlled burn. There aren’t any saplings in the Scone arboretum. That forest hasn’t seen a fire. But the pine straw must contain many seeds, still waiting for a fire to burn off the outer husk, so they can germinate.

Could I propagate them? They’re stunning to look at; their wood has extraordinary properties. It doesn’t rot, resists insect decay and is beautiful to carve. For whatever reason, the Sequoia grows rapidly in the Scottish damp climate. I know, they're not native, but I don't believe that my plantation will cause ecological disaster.

I gathered a pile of duff and straw from the base of a couple of trees along with several green pine cones. The little nest with the eggs is now drying in the greenhouse. In a couple of months I’ll set fire to them and spread out the ashes on compost. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see the birth of a redwood forest at Cottarton.